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Vatican clears retired US bishop of multiple abuse claims

by Press Association

The Vatican has effectively slapped a retired US bishop on the wrist for "flagrant" imprudent behaviour with teenagers, even though a diocesan review board determined that allegations of sexual abuse against him were credible.

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) cleared Joseph Hart, of Cheyenne, Wyoming, of seven accusations of abuse, determined that five others could not be proven "with moral certitude" and that two cases involving boys, who were 16 and 17, could not be prosecuted because the Catholic Church did not consider them minors at the time of the alleged abuse, the diocese reported.

Another allegation was not addressed in the decree.

Mr Hart, 89, had long maintained his innocence and denied all allegations of misconduct.

The decision clearly disappointed his successor, Bishop Steven Biegler, who stressed that the Vatican's findings did not mean Hart was innocent, just that the Holy See determined that the high burden of proof had not been met.

Mr Biegler has previously stood by the findings of his review board, and a diocesan statement noted the qualifications of its members: "Law enforcement; school administration; a doctor of psychology; a paediatrician; a psychotherapist, who treats sexually abused children; and a judge, who was a criminal prosecutor for 13 years involving crimes against children, primarily child sexual abuse."

On the other hand, the CDF relies on the judgment of priests and bishop canon lawyers, and ultimately the Pope. The Vatican for decades has been condemned by victims' groups for giving bishops a pass when they have been accused of sexual abuse themselves or of covering it up.

A few exceptions have been made in recent years, most famously in the case of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked after the CDF determined he had abused minors as well as adults, including during confession - essentially the same allegations against Mr Hart.

As a result, the sentence showed the arbitrary nature of the Vatican's canonical sex abuse judgments, which are not made public.

Mr Hart's previous diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph reached court settlements years ago with at least 10 victims, but Wyoming prosecutors decided last year not to proceed with charging him.

In its decree, the CDF rebuked him "for his flagrant lack of prudence as a priest and bishop for being alone with minors in his private residence and on various trips which could have been potential occasions endangering the 'obligation to observe continence' and that would 'give rise to scandal among the faithful'", the diocese said.

He was also rebuked for failing to observe previous Vatican restrictions prohibiting him from having contact with minors and seminarians and from participating in public engagements, the diocese said, adding that those restrictions remain in place.

"Today, I want the survivors to know that I support and believe you" Mr Biegler said in a statement. "I understand that this announcement will not bring closure to the survivors, their family members, Bishop Hart and all those affected."

Mr Hart was a priest in Kansas City, Missouri, for 21 years before moving to Wyoming, where he served as auxiliary and then full bishop from 1976 until his retirement in 2001.

The first known allegations against him dated to the early 1960s and were made in the late 1980s. At least six men came forward in the past few years to say he abused them in Wyoming.

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